In previous posts, such as: http://brodyhooked.blogspot.com/2011/07/drug-pipeline-not-so-dry.html, I have offered my opinions as to what's wrong with the research and development model favored by the drug companies over the past couple of decades, that has led to the notable dearth of important new drugs. As I myself know squat about drug research, I always offered these comments with trepidation. The post referenced above was reassuring in adding the opinion of two reporters; but now we have word from a medical expert who at least knows enough about the subject to get his stuff published in the New England Journal--specifically, Dr. Robert Schwartz of Tufts in Boston:
Dr. Schwartz is focused on how best to find promising new cancer drugs, but I'll let him speak for himself:
“Targeted treatment” became the shibboleth of the pharmaceutical industry, spurring on a multibillion-dollar search for targets in other cancers. The quest began with an enterprise based primarily on industrial-strength methods of gene sequencing, gene arrays, and gene profiling, which allow rapid examination of thousands of genes in a cancer cell, potentially revealing the genetic profile (or signature) of a malignant cell. These profiles could, in principle, enable the design of a specific inhibitor of an aberrant cancer gene or its product.
But the idea of finding magic bullets by open-ended genetic screening that deliberately avoided any prior hypothesis was considered dubious by some. And ultimately, critics would complain that more than a decade of investigation with powerful technical methods and huge investments by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the pharmaceutical industry had yielded few useful drugs....The molecular labyrinth of the cancer cell guarantees that the odds of identifying a single useful and specific therapeutic target by mass screening are very low.
...[W]e [should] reconsider the way we organize cancer research. In Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science, Philip Mirowski concludes that today's system of big-time, industrialized scientific research is deeply flawed because of burdensome intellectual property rights and investors' management of research. Moreover, international pharmaceutical companies are cutting back their drug-development research owing to economic constraints, and the federal government probably can't make up the difference in these times of deficits and cutbacks.
To summarize, treating potential drug molecules like an assembly line making Model T Fords is maybe a model for drug R&D that is as out of date as the Model T. Maybe you actually have to have a clue as to what makes disease happen--the way academics have traditionally studied disease in the laboratory--before you can find drugs that actually show promise.